MOSCOW – President Barack Obama's decision to shelve plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe could be seen as a major concession to Moscow. But given years of vehement opposition to the controversial plan, Russian reaction to the move appears surprisingly lukewarm.
So what does it mean for US-Russia relations?
There are indications that Russia might support tougher sanctions on Iran, and fresh START talks, as well as more cooperation with the war in Afghanistan. The Kremlin also expects the US to back off on expanding NATO, say Russian analysts.
"We see this as a pragmatic decision," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies, suggesting that internal US factors mainly account for Mr. Obama's choice. "Obama's sober approach is understandable, given the [economic] crisis, because this project would have given nothing but trouble."
If it sounds like Moscow has already discounted this sweeping strategic concession from Washington, experts suggest that's because Russia's foreign policy establishment had been expecting such a decision, at least since Obama hinted that he might give up the missile defense scheme during his summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow last July.
"We've been getting signals since last Spring that made it seem almost certain that the missile defense plan would be set aside," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.
New arms deal now within reach, but concessions on Iran?
Mr. Lukyanov says the only predictable result of key importance is that negotiations for a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace the soon-to-expire 1991 START accord are now likely to meet the December deadline for a fresh deal.
"Now we can be sure the new START agreement will be completed on time, because the vexing issue of missile defense and how it affects the strategic balance has been removed for the time being," he says. "That's quite an important matter."
But while Russian experts say the move can only contribute to a warmer dialogue between Moscow and Washington, they say no one should expect any reciprocal concessions from the Kremlin on issues of key concern to the US, such as Iran.
Why Russia has opposed missile defense
Washington has consistently argued since news of the proposed missile defense shield emerged in 2006 that it was intended to protect Europe and the US from a rogue missile attack from Iran or North Korea and not to undermine Russia's strategic deterrent.
Moscow has retorted that those threats are merely theoretical, but Russia's dependence upon its aging Soviet-era nuclear missile force for its national security would be deeply affected if the American scheme were to go forward.
"The US evidently doesn't want to quarrel with Russia, now that Moscow is collaborating in such areas of importance to the US as Afghanistan," where Moscow has enabled a resupply corridor through former Soviet territory to embattled NATO forces, and offered other forms of cooperation, he says.
Russians expect another US concession – on NATO expansion
Mr. Lukyanov says "it's possible" Russia may be more pliable on the issue of tough sanctions against Iran, a measure it has strongly resisted in the past. He says that in a recent meeting with foreign policy experts, President Medvedev introduced a new tone by remarking on his contacts with Arab leaders who are deeply worried about Iran's alleged drive to obtain nuclear weapons.
"It may be that Russia will be more amenable, but this is a deeply complicated issue," he says. "On Iran, and other regional conflicts, the differences between Moscow and Washington are deep, and that hasn't changed."
Russian experts also say they believe the Obama administration will quietly set aside the other issue that has infuriated Moscow over recent years: the effort to expand NATO into the former USSR by including Ukraine and Georgia.
"I wouldn't expect any formal statements to this effect, but it's more or less clear that the issue of NATO enlargement is off the table for the time being," says Lukyanov.
Postponed, not canceled
So why isn't sunshine breaking and a new era of strategic accord dawning between Moscow and Washington?
"Nothing has been canceled, missile defense has just been postponed," says Lukyanov. "For awhile this topic is off the agenda, but later it will return. So, for now the political situation may improve, but the underlying pattern of relations is unlikely to change in any basic way."
And Russian hawks might see the dropping of the missile shield as weakness in Washington and press the Kremlin for even less compromise on key US-Russia issues.
"I think the reaction of Russia's leadership will be positive on the whole," says Mr. Sharavin. "But Russian hawks are very likely to find faults, and use this to build up their own positions."
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